Arizona’s ban of the Mexican American Studies program in the Tucson Unified School District was only one of many discriminatory education policies that our state has faced. Arizona’s English-only instruction policy for English-learning students builds on this legacy of racism in our schools.
Until the Legislature repeals the English-only policy, which has the identical purpose of extinguishing diversity in our schools, TUSD should invest in bilingual programs for all students.
I learned the power of bilingual education at an early age. Starting in kindergarten, I attended a Japanese immersion program at a public school. Our teachers taught in Japanese every morning and in English every afternoon.
My bilingualism opened many doors for me. In high school, I competed in a Japanese speech contest and won a trip to Japan. This eye-opening trip led me to study Japanese in college and to my first job: working at a bilingual film camp in Tokyo. My immersion in Japanese motivated me to study other languages. I realized the value of Spanish skills to employers and I learned Spanish to meet the demands of the job market.
After my undergraduate studies, I completed a graduate program at the University of Arizona for speech-language pathology and specialized in bilingual children’s speech and language development. Today, I work with many Spanish-speaking students in the Peoria School District, and my bilingual skills have been an immeasurable professional asset.
It is heartbreaking to see that many of my students are held back by the school system when they speak a second language at home. I believe that Arizona could be a leader in encouraging what virtually all education researchers tout as the extreme benefits of educating children to speak and read more than one language.
Instead, we are rejecting the extraordinary value of a bilingual education and the effects on EL children are alarming. In Arizona’s schools, 91,000 EL students are forced to sit in classes that are taught in a language they do not understand without any support in their primary language.
These students are consequently left with marginal skills in their first language and, as research shows, less-developed English skills as well. As a result, EL (English learner) students are not keeping up in classrooms across the state.
How do we know that the English-only policy is holding back our students in comparison to states that support bilingual education? One needs to look no further than Arizona’s abysmal 18 percent high school graduation rate of EL students to see the effects.
In Tucson, there is hope. The Tucson Unified School District has been experimenting with dual-language courses, and many administrators understand the importance of these programs. I am deeply concerned that due to lackluster results, TUSD seems ready to scrap the programs.
However, audits have shown us that the issue is not that TUSD’s bilingual programs are failing, they simply need more resources. It is clear that TUSD needs to fully support these programs and not pull the plug on innovation.
Today, Tucson has the chance to guide the state. We have demanded that ethnic studies be reinstated in the schools to celebrate the diverse culture of our border community and we will demand the end of all racist policies affecting our education system.
When TUSD fully embraces dual-language education, it will result in a dramatic improvement of academic performance and graduation rates for our EL students. These changes will benefit the entire state and will be the first step toward rejecting Arizona’s devastating, discriminatory English-only policy.
Kathy Hoffman, a speech therapist and educator, is a Democratic candidate for Arizona superintendent of public instruction.
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